“To educate, or not to educate? That is the question!” Ah, if Shakespeare were alive today! He would tell tea shop owners a thing or two. Selling anything is tough. Selling something like tea can be even tougher, especially to a customer base raised on instant tea, weak tea in a string-and-tag bag, and the other stuff available these days in most larger grocery stores. How do you sell a fine Tie Guan Yin to them? How do you even get them to understand the difference between those herbal things and real tea from the tea bush Camellia Sinensis? Hey, a tea shop is there to sell, not educate, right?
A discussion came up on Twitter a short while ago about tea shops catering to their uneducated tea customers or taking time and effort to help their customers learn about the finer points of tea. I say “discussion,” but actually, someone was responding to my fairly annoyed tweet about a tea vendor with a chain of tea shops who promotes flavored tea concoctions over premium teas.
First, let me thank the person I had the exchange with for her patient attitude and for not getting mad at or disgusted with me. Quite commendable.
Anyway, this person made some very salient, if disturbing, points:
- Tea shops are focused on making a profit, not on educating consumers (very sensible).
- Tea shops don’t have as high a profit margin (a.k.a. “mark-up”) on premium teas as they do on those flavored concoctions they sell. (I haven’t researched this to confirm it, but if it’s true, it’s rather disheartening, since it motivates the promotion and selling of these low-end teas.)
- Strong aromas bring in customers and inspire them to buy. (I have been one of those lured in by an aroma only to walk out with a purchase that later proved to be not worth the price, so I can accept this point as factual.)
- Some tea shops actually take the time and effort to educate their staff about tea. (A tough job since many customers don’t know the difference between the tea from one Darjeeling garden versus another, or even that there are tea gardens in Darjeeling, or even that there is a place called Darjeeling and such things as tea gardens.)
Now, wanting to make a profit is not upsetting in the least to me. Businesses have to make a profit sooner or later to stay in business. However, selling something that most of the public knows little or nothing about can be a bit of a dilemma. Do you promote the low-quality stuff that sells easily and has a higher mark-up? Or do you try to educate your customers at least enough to know that even your flavored teas are not low-quality and that you flavor them with only the best ingredients carefully selected? The latter will also help the tea shop owner sell more of those premium teas.
The smart tea shop owner knows that helping his customer learn more about tea will garner repeat business, where the more the customer learns, the more he wants to try beyond those wild flavored teas. It’s one reason this blog exists, I know for sure, having written for it since September of 2009. Meeting customers’ needs is important, but helping them learn more will in the long run be highly appreciated.
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